A Promising Beginning – Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent visit to Pakistan has helped to inject a positive dynamic to relations after years of bitterness, drift and mistrust between the two countries.

Both sides seized the opportunity offered by the advent of a new government in Kabul to normalise a long troubled relationship. This reset came at a pivotal moment for the region, with the looming withdrawal of most Western combat forces from Afghanistan, and when that country has crucial transitions to negotiate in the months ahead.

At the joint press stakeout with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on November 15, President Ghani declared that the “enormous steps” taken in the “last three days had overcome the obstacles” in ties of the “past 13 years”. While he made this statement in the context of economic cooperation, it also reflected the positive tenour of dialogue between the two countries on an entire spectrum of issues.

Not only did the visit mark a resumption of military and intelligence cooperation but it also set out a vision of a future partnership built on multiple pillars and powered by shared economic interests.

This is not to minimise the well-known challenges in the relationship. But with the new resolve shown by both sides to respond to each other’s concerns, they are better placed to address these challenges in an improved bilateral environment.

Three aspects of the visit are particularly noteworthy. One, the comprehensive and wide-ranging nature of reengagement – in contrast to the past, when relations often remained stuck on one or another contentious issue. Two, the well prepared and carefully orchestrated visit yielded outcomes or agreement in principle on several issues on different tracks of the relationship. These are spelt out below.

And three, there was no public airing of complaints or grievances by either side before or after the trip, which almost always happened to vitiate the atmosphere on past trips.The visit can be evaluated in three key dimensions of the evolving relationship: security, economic, and regional economic cooperation.

On the security track, the visit had both a symbolic and substantive content. The symbolism of President Ghani’s visit to GHQ to lay a wreath at the monument for martyrs (‘shuhadaa’), and exchange views on security issues signalled an important break from the past.

On substance, there were several strands of progress on security issues. What paved the way for much of this progress was the visit by army chief General Raheel Sharif to Kabul ahead of President Ghani’s trip as well as the military offensive launched by Pakistani authorities in North Waziristan.

Agreement that neither side would allow its territory to be used against the other acquired more practical shape by Pakistan’s assurance that its ongoing military operation would make no distinction among militants and by Afghanistan’s offer to launch a clean-up operation against TTP militants seeking refuge in Kunar.

Significantly, the Afghan side agreed in principle to Islamabad’s offer to train military officers in Afghanistan and to send them to military institutions in Pakistan. President Ghani also accepted the offer to equip an Afghan infantry brigade, which General Sharif initially made during his trip to Kabul.

For years Islamabad had been offering Afghanistan help to train its security forces. At the Nato summit in Chicago in 2012, Pakistan even committed financial resources for training and capacity building for the Afghan military. But the Karzai administration never responded to this.

Now President Ghani has accepted the proposal. The modalities and details remain to be worked out between the two sides. A defence delegation is expected to soon visit Pakistan to share its assessment of Kabul’s requirements in this regard.

Another area of progress on the security front involved Pakistan’s proposal for bilateral SOPs for border management. In the Islamabad talks the Afghan side indicated its readiness to finalise these.

The bilateral SOPs are intended to replace the trilateral ones, which have been in place between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Isaf and served as the legal framework to define the rules of border engagement. Pakistan spent almost a year seeking Kabul’s concurrence for these SOPs. But the Karzai government found excuses for not moving ahead.

Even before he came to Islamabad President Ghani sent another important signal on the security front. This was his decision not to press ahead with an arms deal pursued by his predecessor, under which Delhi was to pay for and supply Russian arms and equipment to Kabul.

Indian analysts interpreted this as a move by President Ghani “in the direction of addressing Pakistan’s core concerns and vital interests.” Islamabad saw this as a welcome effort by his government to strike a better balance in its relations with Pakistan and India.

If the security dialogue produced several outcomes, engagement on the economic track, which began by meetings between the finance ministers, yielded a number of decisions to strengthen trade and economic ties.

Islamabad demonstrated greater willingness to resolve issues raised by the Afghan side and remove impediments for the smooth conduct of transit trade. This included the agreement to streamline customs clearance procedures and to set up dedicated facilities at Port Qasim and Gwadur for expeditious movement of goods. For his part, President Ghani agreed to Pakistan’s request for trade access to Tajikistan via Afghanistan, on which his predecessor had refused to budge.

The economic engagement, however, went much beyond transit trade. President Ghani brought with him not just a large business delegation but also a number of ideas about how to upgrade economic ties between the two countries. They included the offer to set up special economic zones in Afghanistan for Pakistani investors and collaborate in joint production, especially on textiles.

Both sides agreed to double annual bilateral trade to $5 billion in the next two years and establish a joint business council to promote this. They also committed to begin negotiations for a preferential trade agreement.

Similarly on regional economic cooperation and connectivity, there was agreement to strengthen road and rail links and intensify efforts on key trans-regional energy projects, including the Casa 1000 electricity line and Tapi gas pipeline. As President Ghani put it, both sides agreed on a shared vision where “Pakistan and Afghanistan would serve as the heart of Asia” and ensure that South Asia connects with Central Asia.

On the vital issue of peace and reconciliation, Prime Minister Sharif publicly reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for an “intra-Afghan reconciliation process”, emphasising that this should be “fully Afghan-led and Afghan-owned”. As anticipated, Ashraf Ghani showed keenness to move forward on reconciliation, having made it a priority in his very first public address as president.

It was agreed during the talks that his government would first evolve a strategy and framework for a peace process and appoint a team before Pakistan and others would be asked to help promote or facilitate this.

Overall, the visit marked a promising beginning for a new and different phase in Pakistan-Afghan relations. But much needs to be done in the months ahead to build on this positive momentum.

Other variables are also likely to weigh in on future relations. Chief among these is how the internal dynamic in Afghanistan plays out, especially with regard to the stability and sustainability of the ‘national unity’ government.

An important variable will also be the stance that the Afghan Taliban take towards the Ghani-Abdullah government once it rolls out a plan for peace talks, which in turn will depend on what kind of incentives are placed on the table. Another key variable is the role and actions of other regional and extra-regional powers and how they act in pursuit of their interests.

But for now, both positive atmospherics and substance are in place to build greater confidence between Islamabad and Kabul aimed at achieving the goal of what Prime Minister Sharif called “a strong, comprehensive and enduring partnership”.